The Seventh Continent (1989)
Written by Michael Haneke and Johanna Teicht
Directed by Michael Haneke
Human existence has clearly reached a terminus point. The current world order is ending, and it’s scary not knowing how things will shape up next. In the face of climate collapse, social disorder, and a nightmare pandemic, it’s near impossible to see anything substantively hopeful in the future. My personality is not often turning and burying myself in escapist fare. Yeah, I read comic books regularly and am not averse to a dopamine-inducing video game, but ultimately I need to look into the void and see what lies within. Michael Haneke has been a filmmaker that has never hesitated to show us the worst of humanity, particularly the comfortable aloof middle class. He views them as both perpetrators of horrendous evil and victims of their own cruelty. For Haneke, an exploration of modernity and the senseless violence that accompanies it links us to our history and points to a dark future should we remain on this path.
Based on a true story, The Seventh Continent is told in three parts: 1987, 1988, and 1989. The first two parts feel rather mundane and uneventful. With an unemotional precision, we follow Georg, his wife Anna, and their daughter Eva as they go to work & school, have dinner, go to the car wash, rinse, repeat. This is perfectly fine from society’s perspective; they are working as the cogs they are supposed to be, keeping the machine of capitalism running. Anna pens letters to her in-laws, which the audience hears in her voice-over. She blankly states the accomplishments and challenges of their life. Anna’s mother passed shortly before the film began, and she seems to have taken it in stride. Her brother struggles to process the grief, which proves to create awkward moments at dinner.
A dark undercurrent is brewing underneath this life. George keeps having dreams of a sandy, rocky beach, the sun shining down. His wife is also aware, but any conversation on the matter takes place out of the audience’s earshot. Finally, in 1989, they both announce they are quitting their jobs and have decided to immigrate to Australia. They close out their bank account, sell their car, and purchase various cutting tools. Then, after disabling the phone and closing the blinds, the family goes about physically destroying every aspect of their lives. Every shelf, chair, book, electronics, and fish tank are obliterated. I won’t explain further what happens, but things get bleaker until the camera shows unblinking, just complete nihilism.
The Seventh Continent was Haneke’s feature debut, and he delivered a movie that will shake audiences to the core. This is such an exacting critique of the mundane, the quotidian, that it rippled through me while watching it for the first time. So many of us are caught up in the routine of life, so exhausted when we return home from work that we lack the energy to self-reflect meaningfully. Instead, we numb those emotions through entertainment, alcohol, drugs, sex, etc. Those things are not inherently wrong, but how people implement them in their lives reveals the insidious nature of the systems we live within.
The absence of love between this supposed family is so achingly palpable that your heart breaks again and again throughout the picture. This is what is referred to as “emotional glaciation.” Haneke sees modern humans as emotionally stagnated and disconnected from brutal violence around us, whether personal or global. Haneke chooses to present violence as if observed from a distance; it is clinical and cold. This isn’t done out of sadism but to protect the viewer somehow. There is a single emotional outburst near the end of the movie, and it hits that much harder because we have followed this family through moment after moment of complete inhuman disconnect.
Haneke intentionally keeps the faces of the family concealed for quite a long time. Instead of seeing them as people, we observe them in their capacity as workers and following traditional family rules. They are engaged in ritual behavior. Without immediately attaching them to these specific actors, we can see these people are us. They have adhered their identities to a system in which they were promised to feel satisfaction and worth. It’s clear as an outside observer that this fulfillment is not happening for the family in the film. The daughter has saved a news article about a blind boy receiving an outpouring of love from his parents and community. At school, she feigns blindness, and it’s not until we see that newspaper do we, and Anna, who discovers it, realize the total weight of what this way of living is doing. The family is being atomized, as seen through the episodes that lead to the horrific finale.
There is an active refusal to reveal answers. A car wash serves as a larger metaphor for the rhythmic cycles the family lives through. It’s during one of these automated journeys that the husband and wife suddenly look at each other and silently exchange a realization of what they feel compelled to do next. This plays out as so many tragic blurbs in the news are revealed daily. We’ll briefly hear about a domestic murder-suicide and continue on without ever reflecting or asking why this happened. In my former county in Tennessee, I recently read about a husband who murdered his wife and two daughters then killed himself. The discourse I gather through social media is a lot of leaning into an empty hollow Americanized religious-ness and a refusal to engage with this deeper. To do that would be to confront the overwhelming existential horror of modern life, how we grind people to a pulp and expect them not to lose their minds.
From day one, Haneke was crafting masterpieces, honed by over three decades of observing his home country of Austria. Because he has gone so deep in thinking about this, he is confident in telling these stories. Haneke knows the audience clamors to be granted permission to forget and be sedated. He refuses them this request because there is no way past this suffocating hell other than directly confronting it. We must see how institutions and systems have stripped away love and community. Until we wrestle with that horrible truth, daily life is simply a form of empty movements, a metaphysical numbing of emotion.